White ground, blue sky

Skiing: Local resorts have snow (if fewer people) on the slopes even though almost none of it has fallen from sky.

January 16, 2000|By Joel McCord | Joel McCord,SUN STAFF

CARROLL VALLEY, Pa. -- Brown farm fields stretch off on all directions from the peak of this mountain in the Catoctin range until they reach hillsides dotted with trees.

But just below is a swath of white.

And another, and another, and another -- created by fine mists of water forced through nozzles with compressed air.

Machine-made snow has been the savior of ski resorts throughout the mid-Atlantic.

"We don't need natural snow," said Eric Flynn, general manager of Ski Liberty, 45 minutes north of Frederick. "As long as it stays cold."

Mother Nature hasn't cooperated with ski resorts in the region the past two winters. But managers and marketers at ski areas within a three-hour drive of Baltimore say they have had respectable -- not record -- attendance in spite of the lack of snow.

"We haven't had a ton of natural snow, but we've had a lot of snow-making opportunities," said Jerry Geisler, vice president of Recreation Industries, which operates Wisp resort in Garrett County. "We live on machine-made snow."

To make snow, ski-area operators run lines up a mountain along the ski lifts, one carrying water, the other compressed air. Valves are located at intervals along the lines, and snow guns are moved up and down the hill. When the temperature dips below freezing, ski operators open the valves and spray a fine mist of snow over their mountains.

The snow guns roared all night Friday at Ski Liberty and most of yesterday in a frenzied effort to cover 11 of 21 trails that were bare or lacked sufficient snow.

"When the temperature's right, we can cover the entire mountain with a foot of snow in 2 1/2 days," said Flynn, whose resort attracts nearly all of its customers from Maryland and Northern Virginia.

The lack of snow presents mostly a marketing challenge, like a wet summer in Ocean City. Potential customers in Baltimore and Washington aren't as apt to think about skiing when temperatures are in the 40s and no snow coats the ground, resort operators say.

Chris Chester, 19, had been sitting around home in Perry Hall "getting antsy," before he decided to venture to Ski Liberty with his girlfriend, Sarah Eichelberger, 18, also of Perry Hall.

"I figured if there isn't any snow down there, I gotta go find it," he said. "This is the first time I've gone this winter. I'm surprised at how much snow there is."

Snowfall has been relatively minimal in Maryland the past two winters, said Andrew Woodcock, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Sterling, Va. Average annual snowfall in Maryland is 22 inches. Last winter, 15.2 inches fell; this winter, only a trace, Woodcock said. In fact, only two winters during the 1990s exceeded the average, according to a Maryland climatologist Web site.

The jet stream has stayed far to the north this winter and much of last, he said, keeping storms full of precipitation at bay. In addition, temperatures were unseasonably warm much of last winter, discouraging skiers from venturing to the slopes.

"Last year was not good by any means," said Geisler, of Wisp, which attracted about 145,000 skiers in 1998-99, down from 175,000 in an average year. "There was no natural snow until February and we didn't have cold weather, either."

That's painful in a county where tourism -- including skiing -- is the most important industry, said Ken Wishnick, executive director of the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce.

"Wisp is the largest industry in the winter out here," he said.

Chris Dudding, marketing director for Snow Time Inc., which operates Ski Liberty; Ski Roundtop, south of Harrisburg, in Lewisberry, Pa.; and Whitetail in Mercersburg, Pa., described last winter as "challenging," and said this winter has been about the same.

"But every week we got one or two nights a week that were cold enough that we could make snow, and that was just enough," he said.

Flynn said machine-made snow holds at least one edge over natural snow: He doesn't have to worry about whether customers can reach his facility.

"The ideal conditions for us would be about 2 or 3 inches of snow in Baltimore on a Thursday," he said. "Then we have time to get the lots cleared and everything ready for all the skiers that are about to show up Friday night and Saturday."

Christine Caccamise, 27, of Arlington, Va., was playing hockey with friends Thursday when she saw a flake or two tumble from the sky.

"I was like, `Yes!' " she shouted as she moved forward in a lift line. " `We're going skiing.' "

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